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Energy is a critical concept in every branch of science.  Physicists use energy ideas to discover new fundamental particles, biologists use energy ideas to explain natural tendencies in biosystems, chemists use energy ideas to explain the rate of reactions, and engineers rely on energy ideas to design new technologies.  Every natural phenomenon and designed device is subject to the law of energy conservation – that energy is neither created nor destroyed – thus energy plays an omnipresent and undeniable role in governing our lives.  Some of the most pressing social and environmental issues that we face (e.g., climate change, biodiversity loss, and natural resource economics) are fundamentally related to energy.  To successfully approach these issues and to make informed personal decisions, people must have an understanding of how energy sets limits on the behavior of natural and designed systems.  Yet, decades of research have revealed that both students and adults struggle to use energy ideas to understand the systems that impact their lives.  Recent work has shown that effective K-12 energy instruction can play a crucial role in helping students develop understanding of energy that is scientifically accurate and useful for interpreting everyday events and valuable for solving problems, but the lasting impact of different instructional approaches is not well understood. Moreover, it isn’t understood how students’ ideas become more sophisticated over time.
This project investigates three promising approaches to energy instruction that have been suggested in the literature and investigates how each affects middle school students’ understanding of energy and their ability to engage in subsequent energy-related learning (in high school and beyond). The three instructional approaches under investigation are: (1) emphasizing energy as something that can exist in various forms that can be transformed during phenomena, (2) emphasizing energy forms and transformations in phenomena with an additional emphasis on systems thinking and energy transfer, and (3) emphasizing energy as a “unitary idea” (i.e., making no distinctions between forms) that is transferred between objects and systems when various processes occur.  
Each of the three units will be taught by selected middle school teachers from the same school district who have been completed intensive professional development for teaching through each approach.  To assess reliability of results and track students over time, the study includes two cohorts of students, separated by a year.  In addition to the development of instructional materials for each of the three approaches, the investigation of students’ development over time requires the development of new metrics. These metrics will track students’ progression in understanding the key ideas about energy and students ability to connect these ideas to solve problems in new contexts. Further, assessments will be designed to investigate the impact of students’ sense of self-efficacy on their ability to use energy concept and to learn about energy or energy-related issues in the future.
Overall, this study will contribute to our understanding of how to best teach middle school students about energy and to track student development towards the competence required for future learning and citizenship.

Total: US$ 1,499,857 (IPN: US$ 325,460; Weizmann: US$ 325,382)

  • Prof. Dr. Joseph S. Krajcik, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA
  • Prof. Dr. Knut Neumann, Leibniz-Institut für die Pädagogik der Naturwissenschaften und Mathematik (IPN) Kiel, Germany
  • Prof. Dr. David Fortus, Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, Israel
  • Dr. Jeffrey C. Nordine, Leibniz-Institut für die Pädagogik der Naturwissenschaften und Mathematik (IPN) Kiel, Germany